Randy ShumwayAs a parent, I’m often guilty of responding to a child’s mistake by invoking punishment proportionate (in my mind) to the severity of the mistake.  If the poor choice is repeated, I respond by merely increasing the quantity of punishment. 

However, many parents I admire seem inherently capable of looking beyond superficial mistakes in order to investigate and address the root cause of a child’s poor choice.  They also judiciously “choose their battles,” focusing specifically on things that matter most.  The long-term result, not surprisingly, is thatthese wise parents kindly elevate their children to a higher long-term standard. 

This same principle applies to our broken criminal justice system.  When a crime is perpetrated, the instigator is punished.  If the crime is committed again, the offender is punished more severely and often incarcerated.  This flawed, one-size-fits-all approach creates a faux sense of security among the state’s population as fully 68 percent of offenders are rearrested within 3 years of initial release.  Overwhelming data indicates that our current criminal justice approach does not work.  Ironically, conventional punishment often perpetuates root problems, effectively ensuring that crime will be repeated.  Everyone loses! 

Admittedly, some criminals must be separated from society.  But for others, particularly first-time offenders or those who commit less severe crimes, a more lasting approach is to tackle the root criminogenic issues, such as anti-social attitudes, peer influences, high-conflict family and intimate relationships, substance abuse, low levels of achievement in school or work, and unstructured leisure time. Behavioral change requires more than just punishment.

To gather key data and identify which root problems should be addressed before an offender returns to society, an effective corrections program assesses the person’s needs upon prison entry. By providing a treatment regimen for the specified needs and tracking correlated behaviors carefully, the program monitors progress toward rehabilitation.

Prisons in Michigan have recently demonstrated how this approach can meaningfully combat recidivism. In 2003, the state launched the Michigan Prisoner Reentry Initiative (MPRI), which assesses convicts’ needs at prison intake and develops individualized programming. Research shows that prisoners who receive educational or vocational training are 43 percent less likely to become repeat offenders, so the MPRI offers training while prisoners complete their sentences.

Six months prior to release, offenders work with highly-trained teams to develop specific re-entry plans that address housing, employment, addiction, and mental illness issues. After discharge, parolees receive services that support their pursuit of meaningful employment opportunities.  With the help of their supervisors,parolees set measurable goals for which there is follow-up and accountability.  Graduated sanctions mercifully yet firmly respond to undesired actions.

Michigan’s long-term, multi-pronged approach is highly successful by several metrics: three years after the program’s implementation, Michigan’s crime rate had fallen 13 percent. Before MPRI, half of all parolees returned to prison within three years; now, only one in three returns in that same time frame. As a result, the prison population in Michigan fell from over 51,000 to about 44,000 between 2007 and 2010.

One of the biggest challenges to adopting a support and training system like Michigan’s is sheer numbers. However, data from prison entry needs assessments and prison behavior can be usedto select training and support for different individuals, and intervention-focused programs can be scaled appropriately. Data can help predict the best solutions for specific risk factors, such as lack of a high school diploma or GED, number of years in prison, and other variables.

While volume will always limit correctional systems’ abilities to develop personalized solutions for each prisoner’s unique needs,data about common inmate characteristics can help programs provide the support and skills needed to reduce recidivism. As more states follow Michigan’s example, correctional programs are harnessing data to create individualized rehabilitation plans with society-scale results at lower cost.

Few states are better positioned than Idaho to enact meaningful reform in implementing a truly corrective and redemptive system. The state’s policy-making philosophy focuses on root problems rather than symptoms, and on measurement and accountability to ensure social programs achieve their desired ROI.  In addition,Idaho’s cultural values harbor the core belief that people can and do change.  Criminal justice is not merely smart economic and social policy, it’s a moral imperative. As a result of needs-based treatment, our prisons will be smaller, and our streets will be safer. 

The following article is the second of a two-part series addressing the principles of effective correctional interventions. The first part is here.